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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces part of
Angry Island

by Margaret Mackay

published by Rand McNally & Company,
Chicago • New York • San Francisco

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Part I
Chapter 2

Part One
Early Adventures

 p17  1 Discoverers of a Desert Isle

The first recorded mariners to see the beautiful and sinister peak rising from the clouds of the South Atlantic were Portuguese sailors in 1506.

Throughout the previous century the painted caravels from Lisbon had been exploring the west coast of Africa. They had ventured farther and farther into the mysterious south, fearing to fall over the edge of the world, but hoping to find a sea route to India.

Eighteen years before the discovery of Tristan da Cunha, the vessels of Bartolomeu Dias had been blown around the legendary 5 Cape of Good Hope — which he first named the Cape of Storms.

Fourteen years before Tristan was sighted, the Genoese captain Cristoforo Colombo, sailing under the Spanish flag, had discovered America.

Eight years before, another Portuguese, Vasco da Gama, had found the long-sought 'passage to India' — the sea route to rich 6 Calicut, or Calcutta.

Six years before — in 1500 — his compatriot, Pedro Alvares Cabral, had discovered Brazil.

Thereafter the early European navigators found it expedient to sail south to touch the bulge of Brazil, which is roughly opposite the bulge of Africa; then eastward across the South Atlantic to the Gulf of Guinea, and then again southward around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean.

In the hilly harbor of Lisbon two cousins, who started as friends  p18 but later were to quarrel, took part in a plan to send an expeditionary fleet to India in 1506, to prevent the Arabs from again controlling the valuable pepper trade of Malabar. One cousin was the voyager and diplomat, Alfonso d'Albuquerque, who was destined to become the second governor of India and a great national hero. The other was Admiral Tristão da Cunha. (The surnames are often spelled 'Dalboquerque' and 'd'Acunha' and in other early forms.)

According to The Commentaries of the Great Afonso Dalboquerque, King Manoel I meant to send Tristão da Cunha as governor. But when the fleet was ready to sail, he "fell ill with giddiness in the head, whereby he finally became blind'.

Fortunately, the next year da Cunha had recovered his sight. And the king sent him off again, as admiral in charge of six ships and four hundred men, to bring back the precious Indian peppercorns. After the frustration of his temporary blindness, King Manoel consoled him with a mercenary boon: he was allowed to travel in a vessel of his own, the Capitão Mor, to do some private trading.

It was a grim time to try to man an expedition. Plague was killing thousands of people in Lisbon. The fleet was being fitted out at 1 Belem, the ancient port of the capital on the river Tagus, but no one wanted to risk sailing with seamen from infected Lisbon. Admiral da Cunha finally started across the bar on the morning of April 5, 1506, with his vessels gravely undermanned.

Captain d'Albuquerque, meanwhile, was delayed by losing his pilot, who had fled into Castile two days earlier after murdering his wife. Portuguese captains were aristocrats — hidalgos — and the piloting of ships was supposed to be left to professional sailors. But he quickly tired of cooling his heels ashore, and since he was obviously a brilliant seaman, he set sail with his caravel himself. Further, he brought along some replacements of crew to fill up the Admiral's half-empty ships.

Admiral da Cunha — a stubborn, stocky man — refused to have them for fear of plague, and ordered them put ashore when they reached 2 Biziguiche in Brazil.​a However, while the fleet 'stayed refreshing' in port, not one man died or became sick. So the commander relented. He ordered that the healthy men replace his own who had died or fallen ill. The sick men were to be returned to Portugal in a caravel which King Manoel had anxiously sent along for the purpose.

Now the fleet moved out to double the 3 Cape of Augustine, but it was late in the season and the winds were contrary. The caravels were unable to round the cape because of Admiral da Cunha's private trading  p19 vessel, which was a bad sailer. So they tacked again towards Guinea, the others continually keeping back to wait for the Capitão Mor. The urgent weeks dawdled on, with the approach of winter across the Equator, and the other captains growled.

The only one who dared to protest was gaunt Afonso d'Albuquerque. He ordered his men to lower a boat and row him over to the flagship for an audience with his cousin in the high cabin in the poop. He suggested that, since the private trading vessel could not keep up with the fleet, they might leave it behind with another ship, whichever his cousin might choose.

The Admiral declined huffily, 'which produced angry words between them, and for good reason'.

Later da Cunha grudgingly realized that he was losing more by not reaching India the same year than he gained by making the fleet wait for his ship.

When they were near 4 Ascension Island, he hung out the square flag for a conference. Swallowing his pride, the Admiral told them that they 'should each make way with what speed he could, and wait for him at Mozambique'.

It was too late to regain the time they had lost. They had to sail south of the usual course to get the wind. They wandered far into wintry southern waters. Expecting hot Africa and India, the crews lacked warm clothing. Some died of cold. Others were too weak to man the sails.

And when they were all in their course for doubling the Cape of Good Hope, as the morning broke they came in sight of land very extensive and very beautiful.

When Afonso Dalboquerque saw it, he went and spoke with the Admiral, and told him that since it had not yet been discovered, they ought to make for it and know what land it was.

As this advice seemed good to the Admiral, he gave orders to work his ship to windward, so as to come up with it; and all the others did the same, and when the evening was come he shaped his course again as at first.

This land proved to be some islands, to which they gave the name of 'Tristão da Cunha,' as he was the first who discovered them.

And sailing along past them just as the sun was on the point of setting, the wind began to blow so hard, and with so many showers, that the ships were unable to keep with the Admiral, and all separated  p20 from him, except Afonso Dalboquerque, who followed him, and they kept on their way together for some days with a favourable wind.

One might imagine Admiral da Cunha landing in a small boat, excited and picturesque, but there is no record that he ventured to set foot on the forbidding coast.

He may have sent a boat ashore before the squall, for long afterwards, other visitors found goats on Tristan, which had no indigenous land mammals. It was the custom of the Portuguese explorers to release a pair of goats on desert islands, so that later, when they or their countrymen returned, they would find meat.

Subsequent Portuguese voyagers apparently did not make use of their goats — and very little of the tiny archipelago. It was too remote. Nevertheless they showed it for the first time on a map in about 1509: 'Islands which were discovered by Tristão da Cunha.'

Thayer's Note:

a Biziguiche — usually spelled Bezeguiche — is not in Brazil, but was the name of the island now called Gorée, in the Bay of Dakar off the coast of what is now Senegal, where the Portuguese captain Dinis Dias first anchored in 1444. It became an important stop for fleets from Portugal to India. I've marked it 2 on the map.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20